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Reliable reporting (United Nations, National Public Radio) is that 30,000 Palestinian civilians (mostly women and children) have been killed by Israeli soldiers in Gaza since October 7.

It’s almost certainly not true that the actual number is tidy and round like 30,000. Thirty thousand is a stand-in for a number that while knowable in theory almost certainly would change almost as soon as it were recorded somewhere as more bodies are recovered from the rumble and more civilian killings take place.

In the time between starting this blog and finishing it for submission, another several hundred (give or take) Palestinian civilians were killed while desperately seeking food from aid trucks in at least two separate instances. It’s an abstraction of sorts, useful for reporting. But when we regard several hundred (or thousand) civilians as a rounding error, we’ve sunk to a new level of evil.

It is, as Joseph Stalin putatively said about genocidal famine in the Ukraine, a truism that one person’s death is a tragedy while a million deaths (or tens of thousands in this case) is a statistic.

This, because our purchase on numbers slips as those numbers get larger. If I asked you to estimate the number of grapes I am holding in my hand, you’d likely be accurate within thirty percent or so. If I asked you to estimate the number of grapes in a pick-up truck bed, many of us would be off by orders of magnitude.

Early in the pandemic, when daily news reports tallied an alarmingly ncreasing number of COVID-caused mortalities, I began scaling the numbers to quantities that were familiar to me.

The most common school bus seats between 54 and 78 students and is between 21 and 39 feet long. Using midrange dimensions (60 students 30 feet long), 30,000 dead Palestinians would fill 500 buses. If those buses were lined up bumper to bumper, the line would be 15,000 feet long – just under 3 miles of school buses. At a brisk pace I would spend an hour walking from one end to the other.

But that only gets me part way on the abstract-to-concrete continuum. To get further I’d need to fill the 500 buses with bodies blown apart, crushed, suffocated, shot, burned, and now – starved. Starved!

Then I’d need another line of buses twice as long filled with injured civilians. They’d be malnourished, maimed, amputees, mentally and emotionally traumatized, brain damaged, orphans, and grieving parents.

My X/twitter connections skew heavily to academic scientists around the world. They are posting horrific videos and photos showing, in graphic detail, each discrete abuse I mentioned above. It’s bloody and grim and heartbreaking. These are people who are trained to be skeptical and who understand responsible sourcing. They are not given to hyperbole or propaganda, and they have no debauched interest in posting the horrors. They post in desperation, trying to shock the world into caring and often
to amplify the digital pleas of Palestinian colleagues and family.

Israel has bombed neighborhoods, homes and apartments, all of Gaza’s Universities and hospitals, mosques, churches, and schools. As of December, about 1.9 million people (180 miles of school buses), eighty-five percent of Gaza’s population are internally displaced.

None of this is to absolve, defend, or diminish Hamas terrorism in attacking concertgoers on October 7. It was horrific, depraved, and evil and if I knew stronger adjectives, I’d use them. Barron’s (the latest estimate I could find) reports the October 7 death toll at 767 Israeli civilians, 20 hostages and 376
members of the security forces, giving a total of 1,163 people
3 (20 school buses). Hamas kidnapped over 230 people and still holds some 134 hostages, subjecting them to all manner of deprivation, brutality and rape and their families are legitimately and understandably traumatized with worry and concern.

Looking for some equity balance point in this moral vacuum is a fool’s errand but the moral calculus looks egregiously lopsided. Not just to me but also to international observers. In a case brought by South Africa which claimed it “bears a special obligation. . .to ensure that wherever the egregious and offensive practices of apartheid occur, these must be called out for what they are and brought to an immediate end” , the UN’s International Court of Justice indicated that Israel should stop genocidal activities against civilians and prevent them from occurring in the future.

In response, Israel rejected accusations of apartheid and dismissed U.N. bodies and international tribunals as unfair and biased against it.

I know that “genocide” is a hard word and I admit to not knowing the curated and approved diplomatic/bureaucratic use of the word. But I know what this looks like and if my compassion and sense of justice hinges on semantics, I will have lost the plot.

The deliberate substance, scale, and speed of this humanitarian disaster is horrific. The impotent (to be kind) response of our own government is an abdication of any claim to leadership or justice-seeking. I only hope there is rigorous diplomatic arm-twisting going on behind the scenes.

Reacting to this horror, 25-year-old US Airman Aaron Bushnell, set himself on fire in what he called “an extreme act of protest.” He said that he “no longer could be complicit in genocide,” and he died from his burns on February 25 while many of us likely were observing our Lenten Sabbath in some form. I infer that his was a decision calculated in despair for the Palestinian people and feelings of helplessness and that he gave his life in the distant hope of shocking/shaming some power into action to relieve their misery. I keep thinking about John 15:13 (Greater love hath no one…) and the parable of the Samaritan and refracting it all through the lens of Lent. This might be the most Christ-like thing I’ve seen in all this.

Header photo Die4kids, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia
Toy school buses photo: Dean Hochman, CC BY 2.0 <>, via
Wikimedia Commons

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Kathryn Vilela says:

    Thank you for expressing these difficult thoughts. This genocide is horrifying to bear witness to even from afar, especially when I’m feeling powerless to affect it.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Tim, I am sending this to Naomi Shihab Nye who will be staggered, shaken, and grateful. You might appreciate her book Tiny Journalist. Thank you for making this genocide suffocatingly real.

  • William Vanden Bosch says:

    Thank you, Tim, for putting into a clear and heart-wrenching picture of the evils that are occurring now in the land where the Prince of Peace walked among us. There are no moral, Bible-based grounds to justify it. You “hope there is rigorous diplomatic arm-twisting going on behind the scenes.” The on-going horrors make me believe that, if it is, it doesn’t have the will and power to end this tragic story.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for helping us see the world a bit more as God sees it.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I also say thanking you for making this so concrete.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Tim, for turning numbers into human lives, for only then does abhorrent tragedy reach our hearts and stir our conscience. And we shudder as we wonder – “were our tax dollars at work in those weapons of destruction?”

  • Helen Hartman says:

    Thank you for writing this piece. It’s too horrible to imagine and like the holocaust, it seems like no one is able to stop the genocide. It’s a dark time.

  • Keith De Witt says:

    Does anyone really believe the 30,000 were mostly women and children??
    Maybe Hamas should not have baked babies alive in ovens and raped and mutilated women and children.
    You reap what you sow!

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      In human populations, adult sex ratios skew toward female because men have slightly higher mortalities and the sex ratio at birth is about 50:50. So to the entire female part of the population add male children 14 and younger (some of the biggest cohorts on the male side). Most of the standing population is thus women and children. If you kill them randomly, you will kill mostly women and children.
      Not even going to address your absurd implication that these civilians deserve to die horrifically for Hamas’ crimes.

      • Tim Van Deelen says:

        Just checked. Palestinian sex ratio is closer to parity (1.03 males : females). Adding the male child cohorts the total population is still “mostly women and children.”

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I was hoping to see some pushback here at the notion that suicide is honorable or somehow worthy of valorization. Quite to the contrary. To take one’s one life if to assume an authority not granted by God and to break the sixth commandment. To glamorize suicide is harmful and potentially morally culpable. I wonder how many times the author has journeyed with the family of someone who has committed suicide.

    Christ laid down his life but did not take his own life. It is not indeed Christ-like to self-immolate, no matter the cause one is seeking to bring awareness to.

    I know from these digital pages that Tim is very passionate about climate science and has spoken at length about the need for greater awareness. Would anyone here encourage Tim to kill himself in the most grotesque, painful, and publicly traumatic way possible so as to raise awareness? If we really believed this to be a Christ-like act, would we not actually encourage one another into such action? After all, we not only desire to be Christ-like, but are commanded to pursue such.

    I get that there is a lot of pain and human loss that Tim is highlighting here, and the realities of war and conflict are tremendously burdensome and inherently unshalomic (if I may use a non-word). But I struggle to see how a post that begins with desire to elevate every human life can end with a commendation of the degradation and unlawful ending of a life. No, suicide is not holy and honorable, and we ought not encourage people into suicide by magnifying public instances as somehow noble. I think if we are so disposed we can honor the message that Bushnell was highlighting without honoring his method.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Fair and important points. I meant to honor the commitment and the self -denying sacrifice on behalf of others. I should have been more careful to separate the message from the method as you say. I wish he had not killed himself – it only compounds the tragedy.

  • Thank you for making the horrors of war more real to us so far removed from the devastation. Also, thank you for your willingness to risk putting your thoughts in writing. Blessings to you!

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